The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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Community-based nature tourism by the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar

In our most recent newsletter we invited articles from Darwin projects on the theme of Sustainable Tourism, and we are blogging some of our favourite articles here! Our last blog focused on sustainable scuba tourism in Sudan’s newly designated marine world heritage site!

This time we hear an update from a project working to develop a tourism venture with fishing communities that work alongside the iconic Irrawaddy River dolphins in Myanmar.

Community-based nature tourism by the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar

Written by project leader Paul Bates of the Harrison Institute

The objective of this UK-Myanmar project looked simple on paper – ‘To develop two new rural destinations on the Ayeyarwady River for niche tourists interested in Myanmar’s cultural and natural heritage’. The destinations (only accessible by boat) were situated at Hsithe and Myitkangyi villages, respectively 45 and 60 km upstream of Mandalay and the aim was: to help (1) alleviate poverty in the two village communities; (2) conserve the Irrawaddy River dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and other river wildlife; (3) preserve the culture of the fishermen and women who have traditionally fished cooperatively with the dolphins.

So how did we do? On the positive side, the destinations are up, running and beautiful; average spend per tourist (in the village) is currently between $28 and $36 and all money spent in the village stays in the village (this, in village communities where a typical wage is about $3/day). That said, the villages are remote and visitor numbers at 190 were perhaps at the lower end of our original expectations. However, in the last six months, the villages received 13 inspection tours from 41 individuals representing 10 private sector travel companies and after extensive marketing by the project’s UK and Myanmar staff, interest amongst tour companies is very encouraging and supportive for the 2017-18 season.

Meanwhile, there are many positive messages to take away from our experience so far. Numerous workshops and training programmes have sparked amazing creativity amongst the villagers, resulting in a spectacular range of handicrafts: everything from funky, off-the wall artefacts made from recycled cement bags, to beautiful carvings from drift wood, and jams and chutneys made from local fruits. There are distinctly branded bags of peanuts and spices, and locally produced honeys, to name but a few. Each month, new ideas from the villages lead to new products in the visitor centre shops – this is wonderful! Furthermore, talks are currently in progress to market the products elsewhere in Myanmar and on-line through a supplier in Yangon. We are also hopeful that a luxury Mandalay hotel will buy for its clients’ breakfasts the very tasty mango jam.

Myanmar 21012 8 Aung Ko Toe gives a cooking class in Myitkangyi, Credit Paul Bates

Aung Ko Toe gives a cooking class in Myitkangyi, Credit –  Paul Bates

The project has also led to increased community pride – pride in the remarkable culture of the fishermen and women, who have for generations fished co-operatively with the Irrawaddy River dolphins. Tourists pay 10,000 Kyat (approximately $7.50) per person to learn from the fishermen how to cast a traditional fishing net. The training takes place both on land and on the river, and is very popular. Alternatively, they can go on a fishing tour and capture for themselves this timeless, photogenic activity.

With increased community and cultural pride, comes civic pride. For three years the project team has emphasised the importance of the environment and of waste management. Workshops in the villages involved almost 1,000 children. They included talks and visual displays as well as games, colouring competitions, and competitive litter collections! These workshops brought the school children, the school teachers and a broad range of parents into the project. Hosted at the school and in the monastery, they have enabled the greater community to learn about the project aims and understand its relevance.

Although some benefits are relatively easy to measure, others are more subjective. Civic pride is one of them but so too is a change in mind-set of some of the village youth. For better, for worse, the villages have become part of the global economy. Through the project’s website and through the marketing of tour agencies they are visible throughout the world. As with all aspects of globalisation, there are positives and negatives but one of the positives is the opportunity it provides for the young. The world has come to them. To some extent, they are now living in a global village, where on any particular day, the sound of French, German, English or Spanish might be heard. They are living in a village where local guides, men and women from the village, interact with an international, well-educated audience. The guides inform the visitors about the village school, the agriculture, the monasteries, and their way of life. In return, the visitors bring a sense of importance to the village. It is also inspiring for the villagers to know that their handicrafts will end up in Paris or Picardy, in London, Berlin or Madrid. It leads to a different perspective.

Myanmar 21012 18 Myitkangyi tour guides, Credit Paul Bates

Myitkangyi tour guides, Credit – Paul Bates

And what of the challenges? This project illustrated that in this instance poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation are totally complementary. Like the fisherfolk, the visiting tourists love seeing the critically endangered dolphins, which are often sighted in the river opposite the destinations. However, being complementary does not mean that they are the same. Well managed and well directed poverty alleviation can lead to excellent long term benefits for nature.

Without doubt, the project raised awareness of the importance of the conservation of the dolphin, and associated wildlife, with the local communities of the Ayeyarwady, with the tourists, and most importantly with decision makers in the ministries in Nay Pyi Daw. It highlighted the threats to the dolphin and raised its profile (and value) as a charismatic species that draws international tourism to the river.

In the long term, having the support of the communities and decision makers is essential for meaningful dolphin conservation but so too is controlling upstream pollution and sedimentation, increasing the dwindling supply of fish and the eradication of illegal gill nets and electro-fishing.

So, is the dolphin in a better position today than it was three years ago? Yes. We have raised awareness, identified and reported on threats, trained 112 local tour guides and boat captains how to observe dolphins without disturbing them. We have trained 72 nature tourism guides and park rangers and most importantly we have shown to the decision maker and the local communities that the dolphins are not only of intrinsic and spiritual interest but also of economic benefit.

The real test of the project is not today’s or tomorrow’s results but its long term impact. In February, 2017, when we presented our results to the Minister of Hotels and Tourism, he was so enthusiastic that he immediately presented us with a donation of $5000 to begin Phase 2, overnight Bed and Breakfast accommodation at the two destinations. We believe that with such enthusiastic support from the government, from the communities, from private sector tour companies and from our own project team, there is a bright future for nature tourism on the Ayeyarwady and for the magical, charismatic Irrawaddy River dolphin.

To find out more about this project, visit its project page or its dedicated website!

2017 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative! Since it was first announced in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, Darwin has gone from strength to strength. This year saw us passing the 1000th project mark, bringing the total number of funded projects to 1,055 – a fantastic legacy!

We are now inviting articles for our next newsletter celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Darwin. Are you involved in a Darwin project, or have you been in the past? If so – we’d love to hear from you! Click here for article ideas and guidance, and get in touch at Darwin-Newsletter@ltsi.co.uk.


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Promoting sustainable tourism in Sudan’s marine World Heritage site

May 22nd was the International Day for Biological Diversity, and the theme for 2017 was Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism”. To tie in with this, in our most recent newsletter we invited articles from Darwin projects on the theme of Sustainable Tourism.

Underpinning the success and sustainability of many aspects of tourism internationally is the natural environment, from the landscape to the species level. Conservation of nature and biodiversity is therefore crucial to many tourism ventures. Revenue from tourism can help support communities living in poverty near protected areas or reliant on a depleting natural resource, and may offer a potential solution to conservation funding gaps.

However, there is a risk that high levels of, or uncontrolled practices in, tourism can do more harm than good to the natural environment. Projects must therefore ensure that they consider the sustainability of new tourism ventures so that the potential benefits can continue into the future.

In the newsletter we heard from projects working across the world – including Myanmar, Madagascar and St Helena. Although their context and approaches to sustainable tourism may differ, we hope that their stories and lessons will resonate with everyone.

We’ve picked out a few of the articles to share on our blog, and we’d encourage anyone who is interested to read further!

Promoting sustainable tourism in Sudan’s marine World Heritage site

Written by Lisa George (SUDIA) and Rebecca Klaus (Cousteau)

In July 2016, Sudan’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – Sanganeb Atoll Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay and Mukkawar Island National Park – were inscribed as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. This is the first natural World Heritage site in Sudan and the first marine World Heritage site in the Red Sea and wider Arabian region. The Darwin Initiative (DI) project team supported the national nomination process by providing data and organising a workshop at UNESCO headquarters. The new international status will likely attract more interest in Sudan as a potential tourist destination and more visitors. To prepare for this, our DI project has been helping Sudan to plan ahead and promote sustainable and fair tourism for the MPAs.

Sudan is not a high-profile tourist destination but the country has a special reputation among the international SCUBA dive community. Between 2,500 and 4,000 divers come to Sudan every year from Europe and occasionally the USA.  The special reputation of Sudan as an elite destination among the dive community started in the early 1960s when the legendary Captain Jacques Cousteau filmed the documentary “The World Without Sun” and launched the Conshelf II experiment in Sudan to test whether humans could endure living underwater for extended periods of time. Sudan has managed to sustain this reputation due to the quality of the diving experiences, the abundance of marine wildlife, but also partly due to the small number of live-aboard dive boats operating in this challenging location.

Shark_Turtle_Neeser_small

A taste of what divers in Sudan’s Marine Protected Areas might experience, Credit – B. Neeser

In recent years, the number of live-aboard boats has started to increase; from the 8 locally based boats that were operating in 2000 there are now 15 boats, including 7 boats that visit seasonally from outside Sudan. While this number is still low compared to other destinations, the increase is proving to be a source of tension and poses a real threat to biodiversity conservation and the sustainability of this sector. The small number of locally based dive boats has been operating under a long-agreed informal set of guiding principles. However, newer boats bringing clients to Sudan are not obligated to follow these rules. To address this issue, the DI project has been working to support the dive operators to establish a formal code of conduct. As part of this process, the DI project has designed a series of Best-Practice Guidelines for encounters with marine wildlife for both the dive boat operators and their clients.

The DI project also identified a need to increase the link between the dive operators and the local communities. As international tourism is mainly boat-based, and the local communities are not easily accessible, there are limited opportunities for them to benefit from this potentially lucrative stream of foreign income. Establishing appropriate mechanisms through which the dive boats can interact with the local communities is challenging but paramount to ensuring that the communities benefit from tourists visiting their areas. To deepen understanding of the concept of sustainable tourism among national stakeholders, the DI project provided a 3-day “Sustainable Tourism Training Workshop” at the Red Sea University in Port Sudan. The workshop enabled participants to learn more about principles of sustainable tourism, including ecotourism. It highlighted the importance of ethical and responsible tourism and how these concepts can bridge development and conservation. Currently we are preparing for an expert to visit the communities to engage local fishermen in low impact ecotourism activities, such as manta watching.

While international tourism in the Red Sea State revolves around the live-aboard dive boats, Port Sudan and Dungonab Bay and Mukkawar Island National Park are also becoming increasingly important destinations for national tourists, particularly for people coming from the capital Khartoum. However, there is a lack of awareness of the marine environment and conservation issues among the general population as demonstrated by the stalls along the seafront in Port Sudan. These stalls target national visitors and sell marine mementoes including shells, corals, turtle carapaces, and dried baby shark and other fishes. To sensitise the general public about the wealth of marine biodiversity and flagship species in Sudan, the DI project prepared a poster exhibit jointly with our local partner SUDIA. The exhibit has been displayed at various events and has been very well received.

Exhbit pic

Marine biodiversity poster exhibit, Credit – SUDIA

You can find out more about Sudan’s marine parks on their website and read about how, on World Ocean Day on June 8th, Children from Sudan’s UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site called on world leaders to save the Ocean for future generations at the UN General Assembly.

2017 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Darwin Initiative! Since it was first announced in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, Darwin has gone from strength to strength. This year saw us passing the 1000th project mark, bringing the total number of funded projects to 1,055 – a fantastic legacy!

We are now inviting articles for our next newsletter celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Darwin. Are you involved in a Darwin project, or have you been in the past? If so – we’d love to hear from you! Click here for article ideas and guidance, and get in touch at Darwin-Newsletter@ltsi.co.uk.


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Managing conflict for conservation and wellbeing

We will soon be releasing our next Darwin Newsletter, themed around Conservation and Conflict (for details keep an eye on our website and twitter, or see past editions of our newsletter here).

In advance of this, we’re pleased to feature a guest blog from the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Santiago Ormeno, Project Manager for their Lake Ossa Project in Cameroon:

The Lake Ossa Wildlife Reserve is a refuge for endangered fauna, among them West African manatees, freshwater turtles and crocodile populations. It is also home to an array of fish species on which surrounding fishing communities rely for their subsistence. However, overfishing, poaching and the destruction of lake habitats pose a severe threat to wildlife, and harm the livelihoods of local communities. With the support of the Darwin Initiative, ZSL works with local communities, the Ministry of Forestry (MINFOF) and local NGOs to implement a clear co-management framework for this unique freshwater ecosystem. However, bringing people together in an ecosystem-based management approach often involves managing conflicts among communities. There is also a need to address the challenge of human-wildlife conflict; manatees and freshwater turtles found in the reserve often damage fishing nets.

ZSL is working to resolve conflict in a number of ways:

Addressing conflict between protected area managers and fisher communities through local bylaws

Often, conflicts between resource-users and law enforcement agencies are due to lack of awareness of national law, or bias on how these are enforced. We are supporting communities and the Conservation Service to develop a local code of fishing. This code clarifies regulations and access to fishery resources and was developed following extensive and participatory community consultation. It was also ensured that management measures were aligned with national regulations.  The code of fishing was established in December 2015, and was revised one year later to give communities the opportunity to amend it and reflect on its implementation. Since its application, it has proven an effective tool to prevent conflicts among fishers using different fishing gear and to develop a better framework for the conservation of biodiversity. It does this by restricting certain fishing techniques and establishing no-take zones in areas where there are lots of manatees.

for-blog-cameroon-21017-validation-of-the-code-of-fishing-credit-zsl

Validation of the code of fishing, Credit: ZSL

Addressing conflict within fisher communities through Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) 

Conflicts among community members are another challenge tackled by the project. Disagreements frequently arise due to jealousy, a lack of dialogue between fisher leaders and fishers, elite capture (unequal access to resources across the community), or theft of fish-catch and gear. Often, the leadership and legitimacy of fisher management committees are undermined due to bad financial management, personality issues or a lack of understanding of the roles and responsibilities of committee members.

Through our project we have encouraged the creation of VSLAs in the zonal co-management committees and farmer groups in order to provide communities with a clear methodology to manage their finances. VSLAs are self-sustaining savings groups that have successfully been used by ZSL in marine and freshwater ecosystems in Cameroon and the Philippines, with the support of the Darwin Initiative. VSLAs operate with internal rules established by the members themselves, providing community members an opportunity to hold regular meetings. These meetings facilitate communication between fishers and the administration. In order to ensure that committees adequately represent fishers, community delegates and traditional chiefs are invited to participate in fisheries management debates. Also, fishers and farmers are given the opportunity to participate in income generating activities through VSLAs. As a result, conflict between these groups is reduced.

Directly addressing the cause of human wildlife conflicts 

Human wildlife conflict is also an issue. By designating 200ha of the reserve as a no-take-zone, this project has helped protect important grazing and breeding sites for the West African manatee. In doing so it has helped to limit the risk that manatees destroy fishing nets – a key cause of human wildlife conflict in the area.   

Do you work on a project that deals with conflict? How do you mitigate and manage against this? To find out more about this project, “Community-based conservation for livelihood development in Lake Ossa Manatee Reserve”, visit its page on our website here.


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Reblog: Your Snow Leopards are Killing our Goats

 “Since you started working here, we’ve lost more livestock than ever. There are too many snow leopards. We don’t need livestock vaccination, we just need you and the cats to go away!”

By Matt Fiechter, Communications Specialist, Snow Leopard Trust

I’m stunned. Speechless. This conversation was supposed to be about how conservationists and herders in northern Pakistan could work together to protect snow leopards, and how that would help everyone. Instead, I’m suddenly forced to defend the cats, myself, and everything we do, as an angry herder levels a series of accusations against me. They’re harsh and relentless, and I’m not sure they’re completely off base.

Kyrgyzstan 22-004 Darwin-Workshop-Ali Credit Snow Leopard Trust

Thankfully, I’m not alone. Dr. Ali Nawaz, the director of the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan, comes to my rescue, responding to the herder respectfully, but powerfully. He shares sincere sorrow at the losses of the herders. But then he asks questions. “How many livestock did you lose? Are you sure they were taken by snow leopards? How many animals died from diseases in the same time span?”

Other villagers present at the meeting speak up, admitting that livestock losses may not necessarily have grown from previous years. One herder says he lost a dozen goats to disease last winter, and wants to know more about the vaccination program we mentioned. An elder apologizes for his hotheaded neighbor’s hostility, and asks some critical questions of his own. Slowly, the conversation takes on a more positive, constructive tone. We seem to be making some progress.

Then, the exercise is over. ‘Villagers’ put their conservationist hats back on, and I breathe a sigh of relief that this was only a role-playing session. Time to analyze what happened.

“Community Engagement for Snow Leopard Conservation”, the title of the workshop I’m participating in, sounded slightly abstract two days ago. Now, thanks to a role-playing session on negotiations that allowed me to assume the role of a field conservationist for half an hour, it has become very real and tangible.

Field teams from Kyrgyzstan, India, and Pakistan have come together for this workshop in Kyrgyzstan’s Ala-Archa National Park to discuss best practices, experiences and principles of how to engage with communities that share snow leopard habitat in order to protect the endangered cat.

Kyrgyzstan 22-004 Darwin-Workshop-Ali-Wali-Yasmeen-Charu Credit Snow Leopard Trust

The PARTNERS Principles – Our Approach to Community-Based Conservation

A Darwin Initiative grant has provided this opportunity to get the teams together. The workshop is based on the PARTNERS Principles, an acronym that describes the Snow Leopard Trust’s approach to community based conservation:

  • Presence of the conservationist in the community,
  • Aptness of conservation interventions,
  • Respect for local people,
  • Transparency in interactions,
  • Negotiation,
  • Empathy,
  • Responsiveness,
  • Strategic support.

Social scientist Juliette Young and ecologist Stephen Redpath have worked with Charu Mishra, SLT’s Science and Conservation Director, to design the workshop.

Kyrgyzstan 22-004 Partners Principles Credit Snow Leopard Trust

I’m here to learn from them, and to give inputs on how we can do a better job of communicating about this challenging work with supporters, donors, and friends – on how to bring the stories from the roof of the world into homes across the planet.

I work with the team on the principles of storytelling, on characters, plot, narrative arc, and on theory of change. I show them examples from the likes of Humans of New York or charity:water to demonstrate the powerful impact of great storytelling for a cause.

Kyrgyzstan 22-004 flyingcat Credit Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation Snow Leopard Trust,

Later, as my colleagues from Pakistan, India, and Kyrgyzstan share the stories they’ve experienced in their work, I can sense how they’re trying to employ those principles, and I feel a certain sense of pride that I imagine every teacher knows very well.

However, when we reenact some of those stories in the role-playing session, I’m very much the student, and I’m in way over my head. Looks like I’ve quite a way to go before I could be a successful field conservationist.

I know that many of the people who live in snow leopard habitat are herders, depending on livestock for their livelihoods. I’m aware that to them, the carnivorous cat can be a source of trouble, rather than a valuable species worth saving.

One of the keys of our approach is to partner with these communities and find solutions to conflicts between their interests and those of conservation.

Offsetting losses through livestock insurance schemes is one approach that has worked in many areas.Vaccinating livestock has been a successful strategy as well, particularly in regions where herders were losing more animals to disease than to predation. Generating alternative sources of income, e.g. through selling handicrafts under the Snow Leopard Enterprises label, is another well-received idea.

In all those programs, partner communities agree to protect snow leopards and wild prey species in their area from hunting or retaliation killings, while we provide the means and training to improve their livelihoods.

From a distance, these programs seem like easy win-wins.

What I wasn’t fully aware of – but learned the hard way in the exercise on ’negotiating with communities’ – is howthings can be a lot more complicated than they seem.

Kyrgyzstan 22-004 Darwin-Workshop-Hussain Credit Snow Leopard Trust“I’ve been received by some communities like a dear friend, while others met me with outright hostility”, explains Hussain Ali, a senior research associate in our Pakistan program, and the man who, a few minutes ago, so convincingly mimed the angry herder in our role-play session. “I was trying to be relatively nice to you”, he says with a smile.

As a researcher, Hussain often spends several weeks ‘embedded’ in a community – eating, praying, and talking with the locals. “Over time, a mutual trust usually develops” he says, “but in the beginning, it can be tough!”

Marginalized Communities Bear the Brunt of Conservation

“We shouldn’t be surprised by those challenges. Many of these rural communities are marginalized economically and politically, and at the same time, they bear the brunt of conservation”, explains Dr. Charu Mishra, who leads the Community Engagement workshop. “It’s up to us as conservationists to find ways to build relationships and share the costs of protecting wildlife with these people.”

The workshop was designed to help field teams cope with these challenges, develop their confidence in community engagements, and build strong, mutually beneficial partnerships with the communities they work with.

“Like every human relationship, community partnerships require empathy, respect, honesty and a lot of time,” Charu says.

There are no set rules to engaging with communities, and each village, each family, each person, is different. But in the PARTNERS document that Charu has developed from the collective experience of our field teams, eight shared principles and best practices are provided that can guide a field conservationist’s work with rural communities:

“For instance, it’s crucial for our work to not only understand the ecological challenges, but also the cultural context of a community. Even as natural scientists, we can’t lose sight of social phenomena; religion, social structures and so on. They can greatly influence attitudes towards wildlife.”

Later, Khurshid Ali Shah, who heads the Snow Leopard Foundation Pakistan’s office in Chitral, will tell a story that’ll perfectly underline Charu’s point.

Kyrgyzstan 22-04 Darwin-Workshop-Khurshid-Yasmeen Credit Snow Leopard Trust

“Once I spent a week in a remote village, trying to get the community’s support for conservation. One day, a highly respected local Muslim religious leader asked me why I was trying to protect snow leopards. He felt that the predator was causing too much damage to the community and should be gotten rid of. I explained to him that I understood my job as that of a guardian of God’s creation, and that I was perhaps sent here because God’s creations were not safe in the area. I told him that I believed we had no right to remove this cat from the world God had given us, and that I felt it was our duty to preserve it. He fell silent, reflected on what I had said, then shook my hand and told me I had his support.”

Being Immersed in Communities

“This story is more than a nice anecdote”, Charu Mishra says. “It shows how important it is to think of cultural contexts. This religious leader would not have been convinced by an economic argument, for instance. But he was open to a spiritual one”

Beyond that, Charu says, the example also demonstrates why it’s crucial to be present in partner communities: “Khurshid had spent several days in this community, eating, sleeping, praying with the people. He earned their trust with his sustained presence, his empathy, and respectful interactions. An outsider, someone who had just arrived the same morning, would perhaps not have been able to win the religious leader’s support.”

Later that day, I suddenly realize why Khurshid’s story impressed me so much.

It perfectly follows all the principles of storytelling that I’ve rambled on about a few days before. It has two memorable characters that find themselves in a situation of conflict, and it has a resolution that’s poetic and powerful. Just the kind of stuff I look for as a communications officer. The next time I hold a training on storytelling, I won’t have to think very hard about a great example.

________________________________

The workshop on community engagement was supported by a grant from the Darwin Initiative. Whitley Fund for Nature has been a long-term supporter of our community-based conservation programs, and the Acacia Conservation Fund provided support for the development of the PARTNERS document. Our Kyrgyzstan team hosted the workshop, and we are especially thankful to Kubanych Jumabay, our Program Director and Cholpon Abasova.

You can read more about this project and its other blog posts here